CounterSpin interview with Josmar Trujillo on hyper-policing.
Janine Jackson: When the news got out that someone had shot people in New York City’s subway system, many of us knew just what would come next, and we were not surprised. Immediate, urgent calls for more police and more policing, for tougher treatment of homeless and/or mentally ill people. Forget tolerance or empathy or social services, because look where that gets us.
It’s an argument that we’ve heard for decades, but it’s not an abstract debate. Just because patterns and practices are old doesn’t mean their harms are not fresh. So, yes, it matters very much whether the news convinces people that they’ve just been saved from lethal threat by, as the New York Times explained, “hundreds of officers from a multitude of agencies,” using methods “as modern as scrutinizing video from surveillance cameras and parsing electronic records, and as old-fashioned as a wanted poster.”
And it matters how that tees up your reaction to New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ declaration of the suspect that, “if all goes well, he will never see the outside of a prison cell again,” as unmitigated celebration and a renewed sense of security.
Josmar Trujillo is an activist and Writer. He works with Copwatch Media, a community-based project that does print and video reporting about law enforcement’s effects on hyper-policed communities. He joins us now by phone from here in town. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Josmar Trujillo.
Josmar Trujillo: Great to be back. Hi, Janine.
JJ: It seems worth talking about the Frank James coverage, the suspect in this subway shooting, in part because it was so boilerplate, and it shows the bare bones of a conversation, or what pretends to be a conversation, that we have seen countless times. What would you say were the key markers here? What made this sort of classic copaganda?
JT: So the subway shooting incident was a little bit of a mix of copaganda, and also a little bit of a throwback to big crisis moments, not quite at the level of 9/11, but moments of panic, sheer panic. For the last couple of years, local media, not just in New York City but around the country, have been spreading copaganda, inciting fear and pushing the conversation away from the issue of Black lives mattering or social justice, and towards this idea that we’re all not safe.
A subway shooting, because it’s in a public space where millions of people jump on a transit system to go to work, to go around the city, was treated like it was an attack on the entire city. So it had that extra element of fear, of panic, that this could happen to anyone, anywhere. And that escalated the level at which the copaganda operated.
Now, some of the things that were clear were, one, the NYPD was thrust into the leading role, to be some agency that’s there in the forefront, looking to bring the bad guy into custody and to keep us all safe. And the NYPD not only didn’t stop the subway shooting from happening—even though thousands of police officers have been added into the subway system, and there’s cameras in every subway station in New York City—but were also unable to capture him. Part of the copaganda was, one, putting them in the forefront to say they’re going to stop this guy, they’re going to catch this guy, which they did neither.
But then the media also just ignored and politely overlooked the fact of what the NYPD was unable to do, and that the suspect—and we should note that he’s a suspect; because the cameras in the subway weren’t working, we don’t even have clear footage that he did what he did—but the fact that he was suspected of doing it, he called the authorities on himself, after 30 hours of walking around some of the most densely populated parts of the city in broad daylight, using the subway system for hours after the incident, where you would think the police would be looking for him.
I mean, this spectacular failure of public safety was on full display. And the media not only ignored it, but afterwards still managed to somehow credit the NYPD, and the brave men and women of the NYPD, for capturing the suspect, while begrudgingly noting that he actually did call—he was seen by regular people on the street, who had to point out to police officers that he was on the street, but that he also had to, at some point, just call Crimestoppers on himself.
And that was, to me, one of the most amazing things, is this idea that not only will the media always lionize the cops, but when the cops are clearly inept, and clearly not doing what they’re theoretically supposed to do, that the media will cover for them, and politely omit that failure.
JJ: And it’s so important, because this isn’t a moment where we’re just talking about an event that happened and made people scared. It’s linked to solutions, and the solution is more police. So it’s meaningful. It’s not just like, oh, we should call out cops because their crackerjack work didn’t actually wind up apprehending this suspect.
It’s because we know—and we saw, it’s already happened, the solution has already been called for, and it’s more police and more policing. So it’s extra meaningful that that actually doesn’t work. Forget the ideology for a moment. It just doesn’t seem to work in terms of what people are claiming it works for.
JT: Yeah. Police enjoy a really convenient arrangement in terms of perception of crime, and the responsibility for keeping the public safe. On the one hand, when crime goes down, when a crime stat goes down one percentage point, they’ll hold a press conference and pat themselves on the back, and say, “Look at us, you should praise us. We’re the men and women of the NYPD, and we keep you safe. Look at the crime stats going down,” which they did for many years, as crime continued to decline in New York City.
But when crime goes up—and some crime categories have gone up, because of the pandemic. That’s another conversation, that the media has failed to factor in the pandemic effect into some crime categories going up, and also across the city, which was predictable.
But you would say, well, if police deserve credit when crime goes down, whose responsibility is it when crime goes up? The police are nowhere to be found. Then they’ll point the fingers at anyone else. And in the case of the NYPD, there’s a big conversation about bail reform, a really disingenuous conversation about some of the moderate reforms that were passed in New York state about incarceration, [claims] that are completely fabricated, have no basis in any evidence at all, but have been used to blame reforms for causing crime.
And so they push blame for crime increases on everyone else: Black Lives Matter protest, social justice movements, anything except themselves. So it’s like a “heads we win, tails you lose.” They only get credit for when things go right in terms of crime stats. And when things go wrong, it’s the fault of social justice movements.
JJ: Let’s lateral into media, because it’s such a co-operative relationship. There’s kind of a sideways acknowledgement from reporters that more police don’t actually make people more safe, but they make people feel more safe, and that perception is what we’re going to address. It’s very shadows on the cave wall. Like, we’re not going to actually deal with safety, we’re going to deal with perceptions of safety.
And that’s why I feel like media are so core to this conversation. The stories that reporters tell people have a lot to do with what people believe about what law enforcement does, what it doesn’t do, who’s harmful, who’s not harmful, and all of that.
JT: And people should understand the term “copaganda,” which I know is being used now more readily. It’s not just an example of when police are overly quoted in a story, or used as the only source in the story, or when there is favorable coverage or bias given to them. The stories are the symptoms. The core of copaganda is that symbiotic relationship between the press and police. Police rely on press and press rely on police.
For example, local reporters here rely on access to police officers to get access to crime scenes, to get information that is not yet publicly available, because the police hold so much public information before it goes out.
That access, to be able to say, “Hey, can we interview you for this new policy that’s going into effect? Can we go for a ride-along for this operation that you’re planning?” This symbiotic relationship, that’s at the core of copaganda, so the stories that you see are the products of that relationship, and that relationship, I think, is what we need to talk about more and more, and why the media is relying—not all of the media, but much of the mainstream and corporate media, and especially the local media, they’re very dependent on access to police officers or police officials.
And then how police also utilize the press, to, one, stoke fear when they need to, because fear is a really crucial element to validate police authority, and how that goes both ways. And it’s an unspoken relationship, and it goes on and on, and it creates an element of fear that makes the public much more malleable in terms of what they’ll allow to happen without being skeptical, whether you want to bring back stop and frisk, or you want to bring drones to New York City for the police—any return to a horrible form of policing or an escalation of a new form of policing depends on people being properly scared enough.
And police benefit from it, because they’ll have their budgets expanded, which just happened yesterday; the mayor is proposing more funding for the NYPD. But also it sells newspapers, it gets clicks. It gets people to buy into this narrative that the media has been cultivating for the better part of two years, and you can even say longer than that—many, many years. So there’s a benefit for both sides of that arrangement.
JJ: Absolutely. So much I could say… I do think that honest, observant people would acknowledge that the game-changing media on police brutality, on police racism, has not come from salaried journalists, who are charged with and constitutionally protected for speaking truth to power.
It’s not come from there. It’s come from—we’re calling them “citizen journalists.” What they are are regular people on the street with a phone who, I was going to say “are not afraid to use it,” but I think often they are afraid to use it, but they just know that if they don’t record this… they recognize that they’re now the historical record, and if they don’t record this and show it, then people are going to deny that it happened.
And so if we could just talk about the redefining of journalism, the fact that if we’re talking about police brutality and aberrations by police, it matters so much that just regular folks are creating media and reporting about it.
JT: Absolutely. And this goes back, in a very recent history, to Ferguson. This goes back to the highs of the Black Lives Matter movement, the recording of the interaction that killed Eric Garner in Staten Island, the Ferguson protesters who were using social media to shoot images out to the world of what the police department was doing in response to protests.
So you can call it “citizens”—we use “copwatch,” because copwatch is a form of people using cameras to be vigilant of police and tracking what they’re saying, because, unfortunately, we live in a society where police’s word is always taken at a higher value than a regular person’s word.
So you need that camera. You need that evidence, but you also need to show the world what’s happening. We use “copwatch,” we use “citizen,” you can just say “the public.” Some people will say “activist.” I never got a card in the mail that said I was an activist. I was a person who just started to give a crap about what was going on, and I started to do things about it, you know?
It’s regular people being able to document what’s going on. And in particular with the police, because policing is most harmful in communities of color, it’s those people in low-income communities of color that have the most experience, the most perspective, the most context to be able to speak about this.
And not just write about it for a one-time story because, you know, the story is hot, or an editor told you to go over to Harlem and check out what’s going on, but because maybe you live there and maybe you know what’s going on. Maybe you have connections in the community that enlighten your understanding of what’s happening from just a one-time incident to a continuation of a historical oppressive system.
So I think it’s really important that that conversation of us not relying on salaried, constitutionally protected reporters, or card-carrying members of the press, to understand that storytelling is about people. And that’s the most important element that we can start from, and in terms of policing, there are certain people that are policed more than others. And if we acknowledge that, then we also have to acknowledge that they might be the better suited ones to have an honest conversation about it.
JJ: Absolutely. You know, if video evidence were enough, we wouldn’t be in conversation right now. We’ve seen videos. We have video—Rodney King—we have video, video exists.
JT: No, I’ll, I’ll never forget what you told me once. I think it was some event that we saw you at, where you said evidence is not the problem. It’s never been about a lack of evidence, like we just need to compile more evidence, more proof.
It’s important to document things, but it’s also important to understand that this is not just about winning over people with the rationality of our argument, but really understanding this is a war of information, and a literal war as well.
I mean, there’s physical violence, death. There are things that are happening in communities at the hands of the police. There is a literal and figurative war that’s happening, and in those cases, it’s not about you sitting down and having an honest intellectual debate with someone who will concede when you have a point.
They will not concede. The people who are against this are not willing to acknowledge that bail reform has not contributed to crime. It’s beside the point, the facts don’t matter to them. It’s just about pushing an agenda forward, and being the loudest and the most aggressive in that way. I think if we understand that, I think we’ll also have a better understanding of how to counteract that.
JJ: Well, precisely, and thank you very much, Josmar, for that. And I just want to ask you, finally, if you do think about—you know, we’re not anti-reporter, we’re not anti-journalism—if you think about what useful journalism around this set of issues would look like, or what it would include, what are we talking about? How do we get off the dime on this conversation?
JT: Well, this is a long conversation. We could have a big conversation, a couple of days’ worth of conversations, about that. But there’s been kind of a reckoning, from what I’ve seen, in media about, at the very basic level, diversity in the newsroom, right? Like just acknowledging that, right? Not to mention, people aren’t moving enough in that direction, but acknowledging that white supremacy is not just an issue of people in power in police departments or in government, but also in the people who shape and tell the stories of our society.
But there’s this idea also that it’s not just about diversity. It’s also about tearing down the walls of saying, like, this person is a reliable person because this person has a press pass, and this person is a crazy or a fringe person because they put their stuff on social media.
There has to be, I think, room for us to understand that citizen journalism and journalism can be made stronger by not thinking of ourselves in these silos, and not thinking of ourselves as “real reporters and people who are really objective,” and “people who are not credible,” and start to open up that conversation.
Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of stuff since the Capitol riots where there’s this whole battle for information about who’s right and who’s wrong. And there’s a deeper conversation about censorship and all of this stuff. But I think we have to understand that journalism is something that anybody should be able to do. We should all be able to document our stories, and there needs to be, I think, a push for traditional newsrooms to understand that, possibly create programs and put resources into helping bridge that gap, right? So we’re not just hiring from the journalism schools, and we’re creating apprenticeships or creating programs, ways for people to be able to enter the profession, but also for us to not think that the profession is the end all and be all of storytelling, because it’s not.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with activist and writer Josmar Trujillo. You can find Copwatch Media online at Copwatch.Media, and his work many places around the internet, including FAIR.Org. Thank you so much, Josmar Trujillo, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
JT: Thanks, Janine. Thanks so much for having me.